Unpicking Barcelona’s Pickpocketing Problem
Foreign Correspondent in Catalonia, Spain, Jasmine Zaman, uncovers the realities behind Barcelona’s pickpocketing crisis and explains why Barcelona continues to be a haven for pickpockets.
What words spring to mind when you think of Barcelona? Culture? Gaudi? The beach? Gastronomy? Or… pickpocketing?
As another week passes by in Barcelona, I hear yet another person share their experience. Last week’s victims include my flatmate’s girlfriend, who got her phone stolen whilst out in Pascha, and a friend from Exeter visiting the city for a few days from Valencia. Although it is difficult to calculate the exact rate as many crimes go unreported, the fact that pickpocketing is the norm, rather than the exception, has given Barcelona its reputation as the pickpocketing capital of Europe.
With its hot summers, cool winters and low annual rainfall, Barcelona attracts tourists all year round. In 2018, there were over 8 million tourists staying in hotels alone, as reported by the National Institute of Statistics. Tourists are the prime target of pickpockets as they tend to carry around cash and valuable items such as mobile phones and cameras and are often mesmerised by the sights and street performers.
…the fact that pickpocketing is the norm, rather than the exception, has given Barcelona its reputation as the pickpocketing capital of Europe.
Two areas of Barcelona renowned for pickpocketing are Las Ramblas, which is the main boulevard connecting Plaza Cataluña to Port Vell, and the beach-side clubs near the Olympic Port. Local residents tend to avoid these tourist hotspots, only crossing from one side of Las Ramblas to the other rather than walking along it, and usually prefer the bars and clubs in the heart of the city.
In spite of tourists being the main target, local residents are not exempt. Perhaps the problem is due to the lack of care individuals take for their personal belongings. Leaving your purse on the table in a bar or restaurant or walking with your phone in your back pockets essentially invites pickpockets to snatch them. Tourists and residents are clearly aware of the problem as there are warnings in several different languages in tourist guides, websites and in the tannoy system on the metro and at the beach – yet the issue persists.
Although other major European cities do have pickpockets, the scale of Barcelona’s problem is unprecedented. This could be due to the fact that Barcelona is a densely populated city with approximately 16,000 people per km, so there are lots of busy places where pickpockets can blend into the crowd almost seamlessly.
Another factor which plays a role is the lack of severity of punishments. If caught stealing something worth less than €400, the offence is classified as a falta (demeanour) rather than a delito (crime). With fines of approximately €50 and almost no risk of a prison sentence, even for repeat offenders, pickpockets can be seen as being encouraged rather than deterred. In an interview with El Periodico newspaper, Andres Maluelda, who works for law firm Molins, critiqued Catalonia’s legislative and judicial systems for failing to deal with the problem of repeated theft and for offering a degree of impunity to professional thieves.
With fines of approximately €50 and almost no risk of a prison sentence, even for repeat offenders, pickpockets can be seen as being encouraged rather than deterred.
Because pickpockets often work together in pairs or small groups, they can share the penalties and profits. Examples of some of the most popular techniques used by pickpocket gangs include the flowers scam, the pigeon poo scam and the crowded metro scam. The majority of people realise that they will not get their belongings back and just report the crime to the police as a formality for claim insurance. However, the lack of statistical data could mean that the problem is even worse than we think.
It is difficult to deny that pickpocketing offers a lucrative opportunity. As a country, Spain has yet to fully recover from the financial crisis in the late 2000s. It still has a relatively high unemployment rate, particularly among young people, and is implementing increasing cuts to social security benefits for unemployed and disabled people. The average salary for an intern is just €300 per month and a pickpocket can easily make this money in a single day. People see pickpocketing as a quick and easy way to earn money and the presence of pickpockets is only further perpetuating these economic problems.
With the exception of pickpocketing, Barcelona is, by and large, a safe place to visit and live – being ranked as the 13th safest city in the world and 4th safest in the European Union, according to the Safe Cities Index in 2017. However, it is clear that pickpocketing tarnishes the reputation of a city loved by tourists and local residents alike.